Watershed Waffle

Rudy Takes a Dive on City Wetlands for Upstate GOP

It is one thing for this city's frequent-flier mayor to become a traveling self-salesman in his second term, promoting his own legend in 20 states since the 1997 election, leaving town eight times in the last month alone.

It's not even surprising that his City Hall cult would have a hard time pointing to a single successful initiative in this term, when the mayor has been too busy to name a sanitation or transportation commissioner for many months at a time, or to join with the governor in filling a nearly two-year-old vacancy at the helm of City University, a constant target of mayoral abuse.

But as Round-the-Clock Rudy morphs into Mayor MIA, as he starts a U.S. Senate campaign that may make him more visible in Buffalo than Brownsville over the next year and a half, the real outrage is that his policies have already begun to take on a statewide aura inimical to the interests of the city he is obligated by law to serve.

No clearer example of an ambition-driven and city-be-damned agenda could be found than The New York Times's revelation last Friday that the Giuliani administration had "reversed itself," saying that the wetlands around our upstate reservoirs "needed no special protection"— this despite "repeated" prior efforts by the city to "persuade the Federal Government to strictly limit building" on those marshes. The city's 1.2 million­acre upstate watershed— which is its most vital infrastructure asset— includes 28,000 wetland acres, the loss of which would would eventually degrade the system.

While the Times's page-one story quoted environmentalists and Democratic officials who charged that Giuliani was putting "his need for Republican support outside the city ahead of his responsibilities to protect the water supply," television and the tabloids have barely addressed the issue. Deputy Mayor Joe Lhota trotted out the all-purpose Giuliani defense, saying that "anyone" who disagrees with the administration's newly adopted policy is engaged in "false and cheap politics." The mayor once considered the protection of the watershed so important that he cited it three times at the press conference where he endorsed Mario Cuomo in the 1994 gubernatorial race.

As with his recent reversal on school vouchers, Giuliani apparently believes that his overnight flip-flops are an aerobic exercise, and that everyone in the city should be a mimicking enrollee in his flex class. Our ideologically nimble instructor's problem, however, is that usually synchronized stretchers like Comptroller Alan Hevesi, the mayor's all-but-designated successor, have blasted the watershed shift.

"I can think of no water resource in the nation more critical than the NYC watershed," Hevesi wrote federal officials two days after the Giuliani reversal, urging that the Army Corps of Engineers "include not just a limitation, but a denial" of the very permits for wetland development that the administration is supporting.

Hevesi, who has repeatedly cited his watershed oversight reports as one of his own watershed achievements, raised the specter of "critical small wetland areas" being "irretrievably lost," saying that "inappropriate development" could "harm the capacity of watershed eco-systems to buffer threats to the purity of the drinking water" for 9 million city and Westchester residents "who rely on the Catskill/Delaware reservoirs."

While Hevesi made no clear reference to Giuliani, Mark Green, Peter Vallone, and Fernando Ferrer weren't nearly as circumspect. Hevesi wrote only to federal officials, copying the mayor, while the other three sent letters directly to the city.

Green said that the prodevelopment March 15 letter— from Joel Miele, Giuliani's commissioner for the Department of Environmental Protection— "may cause great harm" to the city's water supply and "appears to fly in the face of the current thinking of environmental experts." Green concluded that "we must all resist the temptation to allow political considerations to affect our vigilance and commitment and our obligations as trustees."

The Ferrer letter sounded themes similiar to Green's. Both were initially drafted, according to sources at the Ferrer and Green offices, by Robert Kennedy Jr., whose Riverkeeper organization backed Giuliani's $2.2 billion watershed agreement in 1997 but has grown increasingly disturbed by administration actions. Kennedy has denounced Miele for taking an "extreme and radical action," which he told the Voice was the second recent step taken by the administration damaging to the reservoirs. He said that the city also "opened up tens of thousands of steep slope acres" near the watershed to development late last year.

In a letter to Miele, Vallone said he was "greatly distressed" about what he perceived as a change in position "that may have a significant adverse impact" on the wetlands. Citing letters sent by Miele's deputy commissioner in charge of the water quality bureau, William Stasiuk, who wrote the feds four times to urge the adoption of strict wetland protections, Vallone said he was "pleased" that DEP "shared" his wetland concerns.

"Consider then my shock and extreme displeasure when I read an article this morning that you and the Giuliani administration have abandoned this position," Vallone wrote. He asked Miele to share any data "that led to such a stunning and seemingly ill-advised reversal of your previous strong statements." Vallone also wrote the feds, U.S. senators Pat Moynihan and Chuck Schumer, and the man he ran against in 1998, Governor George Pataki.

Pataki hasn't said a word so far about Giuliani's switch, but Vallone cited a state Department of Environmental Conservation letter, written to the Army Corps in August, which contended that any "increasing of the new and revised" development areas to include wetlands "will have the potential for adverse impacts." A state representative took a position similar to Miele's, however, at a February 26 meeting with the Army Corps.

Kennedy, who did commercials for Pataki's reelection last year, has yet to discuss the issue with him. Once Kennedy does, the governor may well wind up representing city interests better than its mayor.

The pressure on Giuliani over the watershed comes from Republican legislators representing reservoir communities, not the governor. State Senator John Bonacic, for example, told the Voice that he called Lhota on February 5 to object to the Stasiuk letters, saying the city's position was "causing unrest and uproar" in Delaware County and elsewhere upstate.

The same day as Bonacic's call, Miele wrote his first, highly unusual, memo, telling the corps that he was "withdrawing the comments" submitted by his own deputy. He said Stasiuk's four letters— which unequivocably asked for a permit denial and cited DEP and the corps's "mutual interests" in "protecting wetland resources"— had "not been reviewed, accepted and/or approved by my office and were therefore unofficial." Miele subsequently sent his March 15 letter of retreat.

Ray Christensen, the Republican chair of the Delaware County Board of Supervisors, told the Voice that he wrote Giuliani, talked with Miele, and attended the February 26 meeting at the Corps headquarters. He recalled that Stasiuk appeared at the meeting and "said he made a mistake" when he championed the wetland restrictions. Other Republicans, like Assemblyman Cliff Crouch, also contacted city officials, with Crouch, Christensen, and Bonacic expressing satisfaction in Voice interviews with Giuliani's new position. So has Martin Donnelly, the Delaware County GOP chair, who invited Giuliani to speak at the party's annual dinner on May 15 and has also contacted DEP about the wetlands.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and his sidekick, state GOP boss Bill Powers, have become Giuliani's core Republican supporters for the U.S. Senate nod, even while the mayor's relationship with Pataki has publicly deteriorated.

The sad fact is that Rudy's watershed waffling is an indication— like his dismissive handling of the Diallo case— that he is taking positions designed to play well in the upstate Republican base crucial to a 2000 win. He is now more a statewide candidate than he is mayor of New York.

Research: Camila Gamboa, Coco McPherson, Soo-Min Oh, Ron Zapata

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